Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Li-Young Lee on Asian-American Poets and Poetry

"That's another thing. A lot of art by Asian Americans is about being Asian American. That's a very dangerous thing because that's supposing that there's something unusual about us. There may be certain things about us that are unique, but ultimately, like you were saying, our experiences are all universal. We have to transcend, especially in art, we have to transcend those - what I call trivial aspects of our existence - and we have to move on to greater issues, that's really what art is about. It's not about this momentary thing, like about AIDS. It's like, 'I'm going to write all these poems or paint all these paintings about AIDS'. AIDS is a real thing. It's very frightening. It's very important in our time. But at the same time, is it art?" -- Li-Young Lee, "Art is Who We Are," Breaking the Alabaster Jar (BOA Editions, 2006, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll), p. 62.

In an interview with Patty Cooper and Alex Yu, originally published in the terrific but now seemingly defunct Chicago-based Asian-American literary/artistic magazine Riksha, poet Li-Young Lee offers a series of fascinating assertions on Asian-American art and poetry. From this interview, the above paragraph includes perhaps the most fascinating and provocative of these remarks, as Lee dismisses much of the work of Asian-American poets as lacking transcendence. I think that it also exemplifies Lee's true feelings on Asian-American art and poetry, as Lee makes such remarks in many of his interviews (though almost certainly in terms that are less stark than in analogizing Asian-American identity to living with AIDS and then suggesting both are "momentary".)

I have been giving these comments a lot of careful thought, as I believe they are important to the way that we conceptualize art and poetry. And I want to help Lee here by answering his ultimate question, "Is it art?"

In this paragraph, Lee suggests that art and poetry should seek to "transcend trivial aspects of our existence" and be about "greater issues," by which he means, "love and death" (p. 63). But what I think that Lee does not acknowledge is that one of the most important ways to address greater issues like love and address is through the "trivial aspects of our existence." In contrast to Lee, who claims that "our experiences are all universal," I would say that our experiences can be both universal and particular at the same time.

Let me elaborate. Lee praises Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (p. 62) -- two of my favorite poets as well. But whereas Lee appears to believe that the greatest quality of Whitman and Dickinson's poetry is the ability to directly address the universals of love and death, I would say that it is the capacity to illuminate the universals of love and death through the use of vivid, specific images, words, and forms as well as through the evocation of contemporary social concerns with gender, class, and race.

Please correct me if I am wrong here, but I think that Lee posits a future without races by implicitly comparing poems about being Asian-American to poems about AIDS. Essentially, he offers a future in which AIDS (and race) are no longer real, salient issues. It is what I would call a "utopian waiting game theory" of art and poetry. That is, if we "wait" long enough (perhaps decades or centuries), social categories such as those of gender, class, race, ethnicity, disability, etc. will one-by-one no longer have relevance, and we will be left with a "pure" form of art and poetry that focuses on the essentials of love and death.

I think that there are a couple problems with the "utopian waiting game theory". First, I highly doubt that a "pure" form of art and poetry exists. (If one chooses to believe that language and grammar are products of society, then it definitely does not exist.) Second, assuming for the moment that such a "pure" form of art and poetry is possible, I question whether we should aim for it. For complete devotees of Lee's philosophy here, I think that a key problem is, so to speak, "a poetics of boredom" -- an adherence to such a philosophy could very well result in poems that are devoid of originality in language or ideas, e.g., poems that just keep on repeating the words "love," "light," "water," etc. Another issue may be the overproduction of poetry that is unengaged with the world in which we live.

I would suggest that art that "lacks transcendence" is still art. To return to Lee's question, I would answer that poems about being Asian-American or poems about AIDS are works of art, even if one believes that, for example, race will no longer be salient in American society or there will be a cure for AIDS in the future. Specific moments in time and space -- and detailed evocations of specific moments in time and space -- can be interesting, funny, warm, touching, noble, and/or beautiful. Beautiful art does not have to be transcendent to achieve beauty. Perhaps "transcendent art" is art that remains relevant for the society that experiences it. It can exist powerfully for the time being.


Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

I agree about the dubious usefulness of the notion of "transcendent" art, as Lee talks about it (or rather, as you've related here -- I haven't read the actual interview with Lee).

I like your comments regarding Whitman and Dickinson as examples, that their work continues to speak to us today by conveying larger universal principles through evoking specific details and experience. In general, I find poetry most engaging when it stays connected in an actual real world, however varied or multiple or provisional that world might be.

A poem by Sappho or Yosano Akiko or Ibn Hazm reaches me, across wide gulfs of time and place and culture and language, not because they spoke about love or death or eternity, etc., but because I can see the purple flower underfoot in the grass, I can smell the cherry blossoms as they brush my skin, I can see the pale early morning light that enters through an open window.

It seems to me that there's a fairly fine line at work here. It's one thing to imagine a society and culture where differences of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. -- and our ideas about them -- are no longer obstacles to the full flowering of human potential. It another thing to imagine a society and culture where such differences no longer exist at all. The former describes, I think, a world and a life to be desired and to struggle for passionately. The latter, on the other hand, *could* drift dangerously close to fascism -- eliminating problems by eliminating difference (as though such a thing were possible).

I don't for a moment believe that Lee is advocating anything like a fascist society or a society in which differences no longer exist. I do think that the search for transcendent or universal qualities in art runs into an ultimate dead end, a "poetics of boredom" as you so wonderfull put it, if taken too far.

It makes me think of a short poem by Michael S. Harper, which I first read in his book Dear John, Dear Coltrane published many years ago. The poem, which bears a dedication to Miles Davis:


A friend told me
he'd risen above jazz.
I leave him there.


Thanks for posting this.

4:46 PM  
Blogger pam said...

as if AIDS isn't all about "love and death"?

5:38 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

Trying to transcend to the universal experiences.

Always a classic issue. We always press towards seeing our unity with all things, but then the thing is, at what point does the trivial aspect stop being trivial?

What's to say our humanity, under this line of thought, isn't trivial. We're all living beings. Chicken, fish, human, amoeba. Why see a difference and say it matters?

The chicken, too, must die.

Maybe we've been going at all wrong, and the universe is very interested in how particular a thing can become, how far it can stop being part of the universal, the same as everyone else, and in fact become something unique that can still speak to others.

Maybe, just maybe, like a baker making gingerbread men, what's interesting is when something becomes different from all of the others. And that THAT'S what is important.

Ever since running into LYL's ideas about the universal and the particular, I look at the works of the great master poets, and I just wind up seeing texts that bristle and resonate with the particular, as well as his universal.

Examining the work of Tu Fu and Li Po, there are plenty of instances when their work is engaging the world. Dante's Inferno is VERY particular. Around the world, these pieces are infused with the particular, and still resonate with power and strength.

Sure, from century to century, some people may consider those the boring bits, but that's their problem.

When Tu Fu writes of the Hsien-yang Bridge and the army carts and the shores of the Kokonor, I see an immortal poet who's quite engaged.

There are plenty who've come before me who write of their time as if what's happening then is important, even as we all seek out that which is truly non-trivial in our existence.

If we were to write a poem about saying we're Third Rock From the Sun fans, that might be something different, but writing about our experiences in Asian America isn't something to be casually dismissed as somehow 'less.'

We can't all write the Bhagavad Ghita, which, to hear LYL go on about it seems some higher ideal to aspire to, but come on, the Mahabarata itself is a tale of court life.

A court life that includes interaction with the gods and creatures of mythology, granted, but it reads to me as a document interested in the particular as well as the univeral.

The Song of Solomon is a book about erotic love and a dialogue between a bridegroom and a bride, grounded in both the cosmic and the finite.

The greater issues become greater because they have to touch the particular at some point, or else they become simply alien or more likely, bad poetry.

1:50 PM  

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